In the summer of 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to hold a peaceful march in Chicago to protest racial inequality and poor living conditions for Black folks. He was met by a mob of White protesters who threw bricks and bottles at him while the police looked on. At one point, King was hit in the head with a brick and fell to one knee. King was later to say, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I have seen here in Chicago.” King later reported that Chicago represented a social system more resistant to change than even the systems in the South. Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Chicago still ranks as one of the most racially segregated cities in the USA. Let me tell you a story:
I was about 12 years old, an independent kid, and I had gone by bus to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Going home I decided to try the subway system and I got lost. While wandering around a downtown underground station, trying to find a wall map to orient myself, a kindly Black lady walked up to me, took me by the shoulders, turned me toward a side of the platform and sweetly said, “Baby, you need to take that train home.” I looked and all the people standing at that side of the platform, for a North-bound ride, were White. I looked across the platform and every single person waiting to go South-bound was Black. That’s how segregated Chicago was and is. You can tell which train you need to get on by looking at the color of the people waiting.
What made me so sad at that time, and now, was how kind and gentle the Black lady was. There was no resentment or malice or bitterness in her realization that she and I had to take different trains to different neighborhoods because we were different colors. Something had to change. But why does nothing ever really change in the city of Chicago?
Two candidates faced off on April 4th in an election to determine the next mayor. Neither of them had a focused and well-designed plan to desegregate the city of Chicago. Neither of them even talked directly about this issue (it might alienate the middle-class white voters who see no racial problems in the city). No politician running for mayor has ever even proposed something so far-fetched to Chicagoans as a racial integration of the city.
Personally, I think you could have flipped a coin and chosen either of these candidates because neither seemed willing to tackle the central problem which has plagued and will continue to plague the city of Chicago: appalling, disgraceful and malignant residential segregation. Fix this and you fix everything. Many experts believe that if you integrate the city, you will fix so many social problems.
There is one organization in Chicago that has not remained silent about the issue of segregation – The Metropolitan Planning Council. In 2017, they reported that Chicago could generate about $4.4 billion more, per year, with an integrated city. Beyond the huge amount of money to be generated, hope and opportunity would be given to Black youth, incarceration rates would drop, crime would drop, unemployment would drop, racism would drop and the raw human potential that has stagnated on the South and West Sides would finally be free to develop. The segregation which White Chicagoans have embraced for generations has been a horrible waste of human potential. White folks, on the other hand, have done OK for themselves in the Windy City – they live 30 years longer than Black folks do, on average. The typical White family in Chicago also earns twice as much as the typical Black family. So ask a White person about Chicago and they’ll generally say it’s a fabulous place to live. A world-class city. They see nothing wrong.
Unless we have plans for change, nothing will really change in a city where everything needs to change. If the major political candidates will not even acknowledge the central problem facing the city and the “journalists” in the city who ask questions during television debates will not touch the issue either, what hope for change is there? One can live in denial, like most Chicagoans, and ignore the issue completely. Every couple of years a new report comes out saying Chicago is a racist quagmire, possibly the worst in the nation, and folks in Chitown just ignore it. The Yuppies on the North Side live oblivious to the suffering on the South and West Sides but are continually clamoring for greater and greater police protection.
It’s true that during the Obama administration, the feds started forcing affordable housing to be built in more affluent areas. Of course, White folks began screaming about their property values declining. But this was something. It was also something that 7 Chicago aldermen offered to cooperate with affordable housing initiatives in their White areas. But this might have been too little too late. We sometimes act as if every black person in Chicago is economically poor. No, Chicago has lost more middle-class Black folks than any other city in the country – hundreds of thousands. They knew that they were not welcome and went off to Atlanta or New York.
In the old days if you were Black and middle-class and moved into a White neighborhood, your house might get burned down or you might get beaten up by the White folks. The Yuppy de facto racists are too sophisticated for these ploys these days, but they have other things up their sleeves to keep their turf White. The real estate folks and residents of the North Side of Chicago are pretty good at keeping their turf White.
We who live outside of Chicago (I left in 1998 for graduate school in New York and stayed there) need to change the discourse about Chicago and segregation there. The folks who have suffered and are suffering due to segregation deserve a fight. They deserve people actively complaining about this and working against this. When mayoral candidates avoid the most pressing issue concerning a city’s destiny, it’s time for outsiders to start pointing fingers and laying blame.
The continual stream of reports that come out in various media about the racism that dominates the life of Chicago are positively meant, but, ironically, they might be counterproductive. They make it seem as if current White, affluent Chicagoans are not responsible for anything. They make it seem as if segregation was established in Chicago in the far distant past and a situation now exists that cannot be fixed or which is too complex to fix. That attitude is unacceptable. The White folks who live comfortable lives while their brothers and sisters on the South and West Sides suffer, should not be let off the hook so easily.
In fact, there ARE things that can be done to start making changes in Chicago. The Metropolitan Planning Council’s *Roadmap for the Chicago Region8 should be required reading for every Chicagoan. Or one could read this brief but provocative report by University of Illinois/Chicago sociology professor Maria Krysan.
The politicians talk about what the people want to hear, and the people of Chicago have to work harder to make it clear that they want to hear about desegregation. Every effort must be made to integrate and the outside world should no longer leave this issue alone. If the people of Chicago don’t want to hear about it, outsiders need to make a big deal about this and make Chicagoans hear about this. Perhaps we need to treat Chicago as the civilized world treated South Africa during the latter years of apartheid.
Perhaps people should not visit a city that practices a type of de facto apartheid. Perhaps performers should make a statement by refusing to play Chicago until truly integrated audiences are possible. Perhaps you should not move your business to a city that does not seem conscientious about ending a version of apartheid. Maybe you should not send your children to the universities there. This current election shows that not enough pressure is coming from inside Chicago for positive and humane change. Perhaps it is time for more pressure to come from outside. The world must know, the world must help.